On Thursday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman unveiled the second tranche of relief measures to alleviate the stress stemming from the coronavirus. While the first set of measures was geared towards ensuring liquidity flow to various parts of the economy, the second aims to ensure food security for migrants workers, and ease credit flows to the more vulnerable sections of society — street vendors and small farmers, among others. But though more announcements are in the offing, for a country which has gone through the most stringent of lockdowns, with the thinnest of safety nets, the measures so far lack the required breadth and depth.
To ensure food security for migrants, the government has announced two sets of measures. First, provision of foodgrains for the next two months — this includes the non-ration card-holders who are not covered by the national food security act or state schemes. And second, portability of benefits. This implies that ration card-holders will now be able to withdraw rations from anywhere in the country, not just their home states. While both these relief measures are welcome, they have come too late in the day. By the government’s own admission, this measure will cover 8 crore migrants. This is a staggering number. Implementing these measures early on could have averted the painful migrant crisis that has unfolded over the past several weeks. Ensuring food security, some form of short-term income support to tide over this crisis, could have alleviated their hardship. Further, if the only plan for migrant workers is to provide them jobs under MGNREGA, then surely the first step should be to significantly ramp up allocations to the scheme. The efficacy of measures geared towards ensuring easier access to cheaper credit is also questionable. For instance, a special credit facility has been set up for over 50 lakh street vendors with an estimated outlay of Rs 5,000 crore. But in a country with well-known problems of identification of beneficiaries for government schemes, that may not be enough. The credit linked subsidy scheme for affordable housing has been extended by another year — but with questions over job/income security, its ability to spur demand for affordable housing is questionable. There are also contradictory signal over labour laws. Sitharaman spoke of extending minimum wages, and providing protection to workers, yet at the same time, the Uttar Pradesh government, ruled by the BJP, is in favour of doing away with all forms of labour protection.
The hurt borne by the most vulnerable in this crisis is likely to be far greater than the relief measures the government has announced so far can address. Though the government has said that measures are still in the offing, the scale of that distress requires it to do more.
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